Formula One makes its return to racing in the U.S. this weekend, but whether anyone will notice is another thing altogether.
That’s because the powers that be in the sport made the silly decision to schedule F1’s first race in the U.S. in five years on the same day as the NASCAR Sprint Cup title gets decided.
Sadly, F1 only has itself to blame.
A quick scan of the NASCAR calendar since 1999 would have told F1’s schedule makers that racing in the third Sunday in November was a bad idea. In fact, eight of the past 10 Cup championships have been decided in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. This Sunday makes it nine of 11.
It’s not hard to figure out why U.S. fans would prefer to watch the Cup over F1.
On one hand, they can choose the drama of an upstart U.S. driver, Brad Keselowski, with a bit of a checkered past going up against the established five-time, not-so-universally-loved champion, Jimmie Johnson, from California. There’s likely to be lots of fenders banging, tempers flaring, and wrecks a plenty. Oh, and NASCAR also has something called passing that’s done without needing some high-tech gizmo called the Drag Reduction System (DRS) to make it happen.
On the other hand, there’s some Spanish guy named Fernando Alonso fighting with a German, Sebastian Vettel, whose last name starts with a “V” but is actually pronounced Fettel (not that you would know it from the TV announcers). They race mobile computers with wheels that break if they hit a bump too hard. In addition, there’s the underlying feeling with many that the drivers don’t decide the outcome of races; instead, the winner gets decided by which team has the smartest design nerds in its computational fluid dynamics department.
So, like it or not, most U.S. fans will probably switch off the U.S. Grand Prix an hour into the proceedings on Sunday when the Cup finale gets underway at 3 p.m. – and that’s only if they bother to tune into the F1 race at all. As U.S. networks love to go all out with the human interest and build-up to the on track action, ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the NASCAR title decider starts at 1:30 p.m. – as does TSN’s in Canada – so, many fans already turned on to racing who might be also curious about the U.S. Grand Prix likely won’t tune in anyway. Casual fans will probably be worn down by the inescapable NASCAR coverage and watch the Miami race, if they are so inclined.
Putting the new U.S. Grand Prix head-to-head with NASCAR’s finale also means the race got completely bumped off TSN, which has moved it from the sports network to CTV Two. With the Canadian Football League playoffs on the main network, TSN2 will show the Sprint Cup finale instead of F1. Coverage on CTV Two starts Sunday at 1:55 p.m ET. Saturday’s F1 qualifying session will be shown on TSN2 at 12:55 p.m ET.
In the U.S., Speed TV has the F1 race sandwiched between its all-out NASCAR coverage. More than 20 hours of stock car programming will be shown on the specialty racing channel in the run-up to the Cup finale during the same time F1 is also racing in the U.S..
To give an idea of the broadcast priorities in the U.S., Speed’s “expanded coverage” of F1 in light of the Austin race was a 30-minute special last Sunday on the circuit and another 30-minute feature after the race on Dan Gurney’s 1967 Belgian Grand Prix win. In addition, sending the Speed F1 crew to Austin from North Carolina was a huge inconvenience to the network, judging from the Twitter buzz.
F1 returns to the U.S. this weekend at the newly constructed Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tex., after a five-year absence. The series last raced in the U.S. in 2007 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That event ended its eight-year run when the famed Brickyard refused to meet F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone’s sanctioning fee demands.
In F1, Vettel of Red Bull leads Ferrari’s Alonso by 10 points with two races left in the season. With drivers getting 25 points for a win, the 2012 title could very well be decided in Austin.
Going into the NASCAR finale on Sunday, Keselowski has a 20-point cushion and only needs to finish 15th or better to take his first Cup championship. Considering that Johnson went into the penultimate race with a seven-point lead and left 20 back, there’s a feeling that anything can happen on Sunday. Few think Keselowski has the title sewn up, especially since Johnson has a history of coming up big when it’s really needed. Drivers in NASCAR get 47 points for a win.
And while many scoff at the crudeness of NASCAR’s racing equipment, the guy likely to win the Cup crown this year remains a compelling figure. Unlike most F1 drivers, Keselowski has a personality and he shows it. Not that F1 drivers aren’t interesting – most of them are – but they are so constrained by all the corporate posturing in the sport that their true selves remain stifled beyond belief.
In NASCAR, it’s all about personalities and Keselowski is a big one. For example, if the Penske driver does snatch the NASCAR’s biggest prize, he may just tweet about it from the cockpit. Then again, after NASCAR fined him for chatting with fans on Twitter during a red flag period in the last race in Phoenix, he may wait until he gets out of the car this time. Although it cost him $25,000, the in car tweeting certainly earned him lots of street cred and popularity with fans. It’s not the first time he’s tweeted from the car either. He did it during the Daytona 500 when a red flag flew after Juan Pablo Montoya turned a jet dryer into a fireball and after a win in Bristol. Twitter also showcases his sharp wit and engagement with fans about the sport and other topics.
But 28-year-old Keselowski’s Twitter following isn’t the only thing that has improved this year.
When he arrived in Cup full-time in 2010, Keselowski went out of his way to ruffle feathers and crumple fenders. Even his 2012 championship rival Johnson castigated the newcomer for not doing enough to earn respect of the guys already there. After being criticized early that year, Keselowski made a point of choosing “Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers for the March race at the Bristol Motor Speedway, where field is asked to pick the song that plays during each respective driver introduction.
His take-no-prisoners duels that year with Roush Fenway’s Carl Edwards are the stuff that makes NASCAR fans drool with excitement, with both drivers giving as much as they got and leaving a trail of wrecked cars in their wake.
While he remains a driver who won’t be intimidated, maturity brought Keselowski to another level. His accomplishments this year with the only Dodge team are nothing less than incredible. Against a sea of Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas, the Michigan driver pulled off five wins and 23 top-10 finishes in 35 starts.
The 2010 Nationwide champion made many take notice last year when he made the Chase and looked to be a future force in the sport after finishing fifth overall. Now he’s arrived and U.S. fans will be watching to see if he can snatch the title from Johnson’s powerful Hendrick team and deliver Roger Penske’s maiden Cup crown too.
With those NASCAR story lines in play, Sebastian Vettel could clinch his third consecutive F1 title and most racing fans in the U.S. won’t even notice. Sure the stands at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas have been sold out for months but that’s not what really matters here.
F1 manufacturers and sponsors want TV eyeballs in the U.S., not just a couple hundred thousand rabid fans showing up at the track over the weekend.
And, in case you are wondering, next year’s race in Austin is also slated to go on the same day as the 2013 NASCAR season finale.
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